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Holding Our Nation to Its Promise

Charles was facing foreclosure after he was late making a mortgage payment. Maythe had been abused by her husband, but speaks Spanish, and needed an interpreter in the courtroom. Laura K. Abel, Acting Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, shares their story and discusses the importance of working to hold up to the promise of “equal justice under law.”

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

Laura Abel

On October 13, Attorney General Eric Holder recognized me as a Champion of Change for helping low-income people get their day in court. Of course, the real heroes are the people who fight daily in court to protect their lives and their families, despite an inability to find a lawyer, language barriers, and other obstacles. Here are two of their stories.

Charles Guider was late making a mortgage payment after his mother died.  When he tried to pay, none of the banks or mortgage servicers that had bought and sold the mortgage over the years would take the money. One of them filed for foreclosure. He’s still in his home today because his civil legal aid lawyer persuaded the lender to accept the money and drop the foreclosure.

Charles is one of the lucky ones. Record numbers of people are turning to the courts for help dealing with the effects of the financial crisis on their lives, including foreclosure, eviction, unjust denial of subsistence benefits, and domestic violence. The vast majority cannot afford a lawyer and cannot find one to help them for free. Nonetheless, the House of Representatives is pushing for a 27% cut in funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which provides lawyers for low-income families needing legal help.  To spur discussion about the need for civil legal aid, my colleagues and I produced a series of short videos telling the stories of Charles and other homeowners.  Please watch them and join us in the push for civil legal aid funding.

Maythe Ramirez tried to warn the judge in her child custody case that her husband had beaten her and might harm the children.  But Ms. Ramirez speaks Spanish, and there was no interpreter in the courtroom. She later told a New York Times reporter, “It is really as if you are doing nothing in court, standing still and not being able to explain what’s really happening.”

Ms. Ramirez had the misfortune to be in court in California, a state that provides interpreters for some court cases but not others. But her story is prompting change. Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah are among the states that have vastly improved their court interpreter programs in the past few years. And the American Bar Association is developing a historic set of standards for language access in courts, which will help the courts educate legislators and others about the need to fund this important aspect of access to the courts.

I have spent over a decade building a national program that uses advocacy, policy analysis, scholarship, public education and litigation to ensure that the justice system works when low-income communities need it. When I hear Charles’s and Maythe’s stories, I know our work is far from over. I am proud to have the opportunity to work with my fellow Champions of Change to hold our nation to its promise of “equal justice under law.”

Laura K. Abel is Acting Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.